A U.S. government human rights report is 'an amber light' for the human rights situation in Hong Kong, with some of the city's traditional freedoms under threat, commentators told RFA.
The State Department highlighted several areas of concern in its 2018 Human Rights Report published last week, in particular, "encroachment" by the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Beijing on Hong Kong's promised autonomy.
"Human rights issues included substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association [and] restrictions on political participation," the report said.
The report cited multiple sources as saying that Chinese operatives monitored some political activists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and academics who criticized Beijing's policies in Hong Kong, which is supposed to be separate legal jurisdiction under the terms of the "one country, two systems" framework.
It also pointed to cross-border detentions and abductions, citing the disappearance of businessman Xiao Jianhua and the cross-border rendition of Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai, who is a Swedish citizen.
"Xiao’s and other abductions show the Chinese Central Government’s willingness to act contrary to the rule of law and undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy," the report said.
It said Hong Kong and Chinese officials had restricted, or sought to restrict, the right to express or report on political protest and dissent, particularly the notion of independence for Hong Kong.
The trial of dozens of protesters, including key figures, after the 2014 Occupy Central pro-democracy movement on public order charges had "raised the cost of protesting government policies and led to concerns the government was using the law to suppress political dissent."
The report also cited the jailing of two disqualified lawmakers, Sixtus Leung and Yao Wai-ching, last June for four weeks on "unlawful assembly" charges, following scuffles with Legislative Council security guards in 2016.
It said the banning of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party (HKNP) last September was one example, while the disqualification of six pro-democracy lawmakers for "improperly" taking their oaths of allegiance was another.
The U.K.'s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) voiced concern at the time over the ban, which relied on colonial-era legislation under the Societies Ordinance that originally targeted criminal organizations, or "triads."
"The UK does not support Hong Kong independence, but Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy and its rights and freedoms are central to its way of life, and it is important they are fully respected," the statement said.
'An amber light'
Hong Kong political commentator Sang Pu said the State Department report had struck a note of warning to the international community.
"I don't think this is a red light, but it is an amber light," Sang told RFA, adding that a further deterioration could affect Hong Kong's international reputation as an open port.
"But if Hong Kong's human rights situation continues to deteriorate in the next couple of years ... for example, if we see more kidnappings, then I think the U.S. is very likely to abolish Hong Kong's status as a separate trading territory."
Another red flag would be the enactment of sedition, subversion and national security laws, as mandated by Article 23 of the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, Sang said.
Meanwhile, a national law passed by Beijing in September 2017 "criminalizes any action mocking the Chinese national anthem and requires persons attending public events to stand at attention and sing the anthem in a solemn manner during its rendition," the State Department report said, adding that Hong Kong will soon legislate to make the law apply in its own jurisdiction.
It also pointed to the effective expulsion from Hong Kong, the first since the handover, of Financial Times Asia news editor Victor Mallet, after he hosted at event at the Foreign Correspondents' Club featuring HKNP founder Andy Chan as the speaker.
The move came as the Hong Kong Journalists Association warned of increasing self-censorship among local journalists, often among media outlets with business interests in mainland China.
Pro-democracy lawmaker Alvin Yeung, who also heads Hong Kong's Civic Party, said he shares concerns over Hong Kong's reputation.
"Our most important competitor, Singapore, has free trade agreements with pretty much the rest of the world, and Hong Kong is lagging behind," Yeung said.
"Our international image is probably that Hong Kong wouldn't be capable of such a thing," he said. "Other countries might not be interested in pursuing free trade agreements with Hong Kong, because there are no benefits to doing so."
But pro-Beijing lawmaker Priscilla Leung said Hong Kong remains a free society.
"We have a very high level of human rights protection," Leung said. "I hope they aren't going to suppress our economic freedom under the guise of human rights."
Reported by Lu Xi for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Lee Wang-yam for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.